Wayne Wurtsbaugh

Watershed Sciences Department

Utah State University


Dr. Wayne Wurtsbaugh is an emeritus professor in the Watershed Sciences Department and the Ecology Center at Utah State University.  His research and teaching interests are in the areas of limnology, water pollution and fisheries.  Dr. Wurtsbaugh has a B.S. in Fisheries from the University of California, Davis (UCD), an M.S. in Fisheries and Water Quality from Oregon State University, and a Ph.D. in Ecology from UCD.  He has 47 years of experience in research and teaching in the field of aquatic ecology.  He has worked internationally on four continents utilizing environmental monitoring, large-scale field experiments, and laboratory assays to address both basic and applied research questions.  He has been working on the Great Salt Lake for 33 years conducting studies on brine shrimp, eutrophication, contaminants and the lake’s hydrology.  He has published over 90 papers in scientific journals, and numerous reports to state and federal agencies concerned with the Great Salt Lake.

Title: Lessons from the Desiccation of the World’s Saline Lakes:  Is It Too Late For Great Salt Lake?

Thursday, May 10th 3:25 PM

Abstract: Saline lakes are not common, representing 44% of the volume and 23% of the area of all lakes on Earth. These systems are being lost at an alarming rate as overpopulation increases the demand for irrigated agriculture and water for urban centers. Central Asia’s Aral Sea, the Dead Sea in Jordan and Israel, Bolivia’s Lake Poopó, Iran’s Lake Urmia, and California’s Salton Sea are prominent examples of the startling trend of human impacts on these ecosystems. Water development for agricultural, industrial and municipal applications increases economic productivity and stability. In contrast, the ecological, sociological and economic benefits of saline lakes are diverse, but not as easily monetized. Terminal saline accumulate and recycle nutrients more than freshwater systems, so they are highly productive. This makes them extremely important for avian communities, and consequently, saline lakes around the world have been designated as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance or as Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve sites. Decreases in lake size and the simultaneous increase in salinity decreases bird habitat and the production of their prey organisms. At Lake Urmia, for example, increasing salinities have eradicated brine shrimp, flamingos and most other birds. Additionally, when saline lakes are desiccated, they become sources of dust that harm human health and agriculture.The city of Los Angeles, which diverted water from the Owens Lake watershed in California, will spend US$ 3.6 billion to reduce dust emissions from the relatively small dry bed of Owen’s Lake in an effort to mitigate these effects. Effective controls of dust emissions from larger desiccated lakes become logistically and economically unfeasible.

Once water development occurs in a basin and a saline lake is desiccated, it becomes extremely difficult to reverse the trend because humans become habituated to high water use. Abundant and inexpensive water leads urban users to landscape their homes without regard to the environmental and human health costs. Another example is the Iranian government that built dams and irrigation systems in the Lake Urmia basin over the past 25 years that has caused a precipitous decline in the lake. Iranians are now struggling to recover the lake, but the establishment of water-hungry crops has made the agricultural community dependent on intensive irrigation, and it seems unlikely that the lake can be saved in the foreseeable future. Dust storms, impacts on human health, and the loss of avian communities will likely persist for decades.   

Great Salt Lake has lost approximately 50% of its area and volume and proposed water development would cause additional loss. Nevertheless, much of the lake is still functional, and we can, and should, learn lessons from the ecological disasters that have occurred elsewhere.  Water conservation, reduced population growth and changes in water distribution laws can preclude the need for further water development, and even provide additional water to the lake to reverse the decline seen over the past 150 years. Unlike many developing nations, we have the economic means and the knowledge to save the lake—now is the time to act before it is too late.